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Dissent Again by David T. JonesThe author, a retired senior U. S. Foreign Service officer, takes issue with the Foreign Service officers who have taken issue with the Bush administration’s policy of war against Iraq. In this thoughtful article, he elaborates his position in favor: “It is the conjunction of Saddam,” he writes, “with WMD that is uniquely threatening.” — Ed.

The Foreign Service is again exploring the swamp of dissent. The most recent episode is the sequential resignation of three Foreign Service officers shortly before the Iraq Liberation operation. Although each FSO proffered individual reasons for departure, in essence they disagreed with our policy of direct military confrontation toward Iraq and left the State Department with public blasts for our objectives while offering dire predictions for the political consequences.

The resignation letters are available at the following links:

FSO Wright
FSO Brown
FSO Keisling

So be it; they are welcome to their opinions. And so far as resignation is concerned, we probably should and will have more of them. As is the case throughout U.S. society, the Foreign Service is no longer a lifetime career and tensions between leaders and led are significant–even in benign circumstances.

Indeed, State probably still has more timeserving drones than it should. There are certainly individuals who care not which policy they implement so long as it brings them another day closer to retirement. And there are those who quickly find assignments in other geographic/functional bureaus to avoid implementing policy they abhor, but permit them to retain jobs that keep mortgage, child support, and college tuition money in the bank account. So if there are those, who despite having taken the “King’s shilling” for years, even for decades, now have qualms over USG action, we are better off without them–and they are better off to depart.

But the manner of dissent (with its ultimate of resignation) is almost as important as the fact of dissent. Nothing more becomes one than the manner of your departure. In my view, the classic resignation was that of former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. During the extended crisis in 1979-80 following the Iranian seizure of U.S. hostages at our Embassy in Teheran, the military conceived and President Carter authorized a rescue effort. From his vantagepoint of total access and consummate experience, Secretary Vance opposed this effort; he was overruled. He determined that he would resign whatever the outcome of the rescue mission (it failed catastrophically), but he did and said nothing publicly until the mission was complete when he resigned. Against that standard, the nature of the departure for these new resignees becomes neither them nor their cause. They certainly do not get style points either for the logic of their arguments or their knowledge of particulars, regardless of the presumed purity of their hearts.

Traditionally, those who have opposed a particular policy at least have had intimate experience with it. Thus, in my generation of Foreign Service officers, the opposition to U.S. Vietnam policy was often stimulated by experience in Vietnam (or sometimes simply the desire to avoid such experience). The long casualty list among FSOs as reflected in the AFSA Memorial Plaque certainly earned the right to dissent. More recently, about a decade ago, a number of primarily mid-level FSOs resigned over our positions toward Yugoslavia; they without exception had extensive experience in the area. The annual AFSA dissent awards are presented to “boat rockers” who know the subject of their dissent in considerable detail. The point is obvious. To effectively rebut a position, knowledge is necessary; inchoate feelings are warm and fuzzy but not particularly convincing to those designing and executing policy.

In contrast, from what I have gathered from admittedly limited media coverage, none of the three resignees had recent (or perhaps any) experience in the Middle East. At the time of their resignation, none held a position associated with Middle East (let alone Iraq) policy formulation. In fact they could hardly have been further from the circles of decisionmaking. Frankly, Greece, Mongolia, and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy in Georgetown are somewhat removed from the locus of executive authority.

Some Retrospective Perspective
It appears clear that the Bush Administration came to power with no interest in acting as global policeman. Campaign rhetoric is always suspect, but it certainly appeared that the Administration wanted to do less rather than more in terms of peacekeeping/nation building in foreign affairs. To the extent possible, it looked at some of the foreign policy conundrums (read the Middle East) and determined that they were sinkholes for senior level time and energy. As a case in point, while senior level Bush-appointed State and DOD officials surely had political differences with the Clinton Administration team, they would not have suggested they were stupid and/or lazy. Thus their inability to conclude a Middle East peace despite enormous effort suggested that it belonged in the “too hard” box. Other complicated issues such as terrorism were to be “managed”–solving them was just too expensive fiscally and politically to justify the effort.

All of this has changed with 9/11. Although the Clinton Administration was well aware of Bin Laden/al Qaeda connections to the USS Cole attack and the assaults on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, it made a calculation that the correct approach was to “manage” the terrorism problem. It is feckless to Monday-morning quarterback. With the proverbial 20:20 hindsight, who would not have done more? But who in 1999 would have supported a mission comparable to that undertaken in Afghanistan two years later?

As our calculation of risk has changed, so too has our willingness to pay the price. It is not that Saddam is a uniquely unpleasant individual or Iraq a uniquely unpleasant regime. It is the conjunction of Saddam with WMD that is uniquely threatening. Senior U.S. leadership based on the full panoply of intelligence concluded both that the reports of Iraqi WMD were accurate and reached the judgment that they would be used against us (later if not sooner). The combination was too threatening to endure. They have bet their careers on these determinations.

Basis for Legitimate Dissent on Iraq
Nobody in 21st century U.S. society blindly follows orders. Obviously, criminal conduct can never be defended by an “I was just following orders” rationale. Thus waste, fraud, and abuse “hotlines” and recourse to the Inspector General are vital elements of the modern Foreign Service. We may not think of these mechanisms as “dissent,” but they are one facet of the dissent spectrum. Nor did I encounter in my career anyone who took an “orders are orders” position; those who feel strongly about a position today can “take a footnote” to an Embassy reporting/analytic telegram.

Thus if the dissenters had uncovered intelligence that clearly demonstrated there were no chemical or biological weapons in Iraq and/or that all had been comprehensively destroyed, they would have had a duty to bring this evidence forward. Likewise, if they had evidence that the “intelligence” had been fabricated and that the specific elements of Secretary Powell’s briefing to the UNSC were systemic lies, it would be pure patriotism to reveal such duplicity. But these are not the dissenters’ claims.

Likewise, if the dissenters had strong contradictory evidence to refute the depiction of Saddam as a bloody handed tyrant, such material would have been vital. If, for example, it were Iranians rather than Iraqis who used nerve gas on the Kurds. Or that there are no torture chambers in Iraq and the reports were propaganda constructs by Saddam’s domestic opponents. This would have been vital information, but the dissenters do not so suggest.

Or if there were defining evidence available to the dissenters but suppressed by the Administration that a major U.S. ally (Germany, France, Japan) or a significant rival (China, Russia) would break diplomatic relations, offer military support to Iraq, withdraw from bilateral alliances or arms control agreements, introduce trade sanctions, etc, these circumstances would have justified public dissent. Likewise, had they unmistakable evidence that other countries manipulated our confrontation with Iraq and U.S. officials were being bribed to take their positions, it would have been obvious justification for vigorous public dissent. But none of these rationales is employed.

Instead, they take their stance on the much softer ground that it is damaging our relations with various countries, some friendly and others not; that it is generating anti-Americanism and “ill will”, is an “unjustified” use of force, etc.

Obviously, they believe themselves more insightful and witting despite their distance from the intelligence judgments and calculations than the assembly of those at senior levels who believe otherwise.  Forgive me if, even at the cynical age of 60 plus, I remain more willing to accept their credibility than the dissenters’ demurs.

I do not know how long the officers in Greece and Mongolia had been assigned overseas. It may indeed be that they lost touch with the United States and the degree to which we are no longer willing to accept the judgments of others regarding the threat directed at us. There is a distinct change in the U.S. national character stimulated by 9/11 that foreigners, expatriate Americans, or government officials long stationed overseas may appreciate intellectually but not viscerally. Home leave, particularly if not extensive or post-9/11, may not have brought this reality home to them.  Alternatively, they would not be the first FSOs to have succumbed to localitis and come to accept as verities the laments of those who have their rather than our interests in their minds and mouths. One also recalls the public denunciations from the OAS when U.S. action removed Noriega from power; it is a long time since any of these states has petitioned for his reinstallation.

Nor is there any indication from public commentary that any of the resignees exercised their right to use the Dissent Channel. A mechanism unique to the Department of State, the Dissent Channel is designed to raise policy concerns by subordinate officers to the most senior levels in the Department with assured confidentiality. The Dissent Channel was born in the wave of FSO concern over the nature of our Vietnam commitment; it has been used persistently if not extensively over the intervening years. While I doubt that every officer using the channel has come away with the vindication of having reversed USG policy, it provides an opportunity to obtain greater information on the objectionable policy. It is possible that one or more of the resignees used the Dissent Channel (such information is highly confidential), but if so, it has not been reported.

Ultimately is a certain arrogance to dissent. We are so adroit at symbol manipulation, verbal and written, that we come to believe that being listened to equates to being agreed with. Thus, if someone does not agree with your position, it simply means that they have not listened to you. It goes beyond their mindsets that senior officials can listen, evaluate, and then reject their conclusions.

Although we would have preferred it otherwise, significant numbers of states–for their own interests–chose to oppose our objective of eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  Some, of course, oppose us because their preference is indeed for Saddam Hussein and the current Iraqi regime.  Others simply oppose our objectives because they are the objectives of the United States.  Their laments, in the end, seem less that we seek to eliminate Iraq’s WMD than that we won’t do it in a way that satisfies their sensibilities. Their insistence that the United Nations was the only acceptable mechanism for addressing Iraq’s WMD is akin to someone insisting that a boulder must be removed with a toothpick–or not moved at all. Thus their major complaint appears to be that we have the power to act in our own interests and the will to do so; we act to make history rather than wait to have history act upon us.  

And this appears to lie at the basis of the resignations. The United States is determined to act in its interests as identified and assessed by our leadership. We listened at great length to the alternative arguments and options presented by others; we disagreed with their desires that we act only if we had some specific United Nations–a mandate virtually never accorded in UN history and roundly ignored by our UNSC critics such as France and Russia. If the resignees prefer that the United Nations direct global foreign policy, they should have worked on the UN international staff and not for the Department of State.We tried very hard to avoid war; but we declined to accept lies as truth, and Iraq declined to alleviate our concerns.  War is never an easy answer.  Nor does it solve every question.  But war has indeed solved some particularly nasty problems and–most recently–it solved the problem of the Taliban regime as a state sponsor of terrorism.  And when the current confrontation with Baghdad is concluded, the United States will have resolved its Iraq problem — whatever new problems may emerge.   

In the end, if this is an unacceptable course of action for a U.S. diplomat; well, goodbye and “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”


David T. Jones has published several analytical articles on Canadian politics in American Diplomacy.


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